Malaysia is one of Asia's biggest employers of foreign labour. But recently, cases of deaths, abuse and forced labour have come to light. What is going on? Who is protecting these migrant workers?
It is eight o’clock in the industrial area of Port Klang, an hour’s drive west of Kuala Lumpur, and the entrance to the Samsung factory is heaving with workers. As hundreds of men and women pour out of the factory gates into the clammy air, hundreds more file in to start the night shift.
Outside the factory gates, those who have finished their shift crouch on the pavement in the evening heat, their faces reflecting the glow of their mobile phones as they wait for the fleet of buses that will take them back to their accommodation. Among them is 18-year-old Aakash Bhandari, who sits slumped on the side of the road, exhausted after 12 hours on his feet.
Bhandari is just one of the 2,000 people working at this Samsung factory, a non-stop operation churning out microwave ovens sold to consumers across the world. There are an estimated 2.1 million documented migrant workers like Bhandari in Malaysia, many of them hired through third-party labour supply companies who recruit foreign workers from Nepal, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh to drive Malaysia’s industrial boom.
Bhandari is a long way from his village in the remote hills of western Nepal. Back home, a series of family tragedies and debt led him to drop out of school and look for work abroad. Malaysia is a notoriously dangerous place for migrant workers, but a recruitment agent in Nepal told him he’d be working for Samsung, one of the world’s biggest brands.
In total, Bhandari says he paid £750 to secure his job in Malaysia – more than the average annual salary in his home district.
“[The agent in Nepal] told me it was a [Samsung] mobile phone factory where I would only have to pack mobiles … but I am making microwaves and it is very difficult,” says Bhandari.
Now he’s in Malaysia, Bhandari’s recruitment debt – and the 60% interest loan he took to pay it – has a stranglehold on the teenager.
“When you go to the recruitment agent, they promise a certain salary and assure you that you will be able to pay back your loan and earn money, but when you get here you find it’s impossible to pay the money back, even if you stay here for two years,” he says.
This debt is keeping him at the factory – that and the pressure to pay it back and send money home to his family, who have pinned all their prospects on his earning potential in Malaysia.
“In Kathmandu the agent told me, ‘If you don’t like the work we’ll change your company…’ That is why I came … [but now] he says I have to give him 20,000 rupees [£150] to change jobs.” This additional payment is impossible for him to afford.
Bhandari is not alone. A group of workers employed by the same labour supply company stop to talk to the Guardian before they start their night shifts. They also feel they have been duped and deceived by their labour supply company into taking on huge debts to come and work at the Samsung factory.
Some say the labour supply company had assured them they would receive £315 a month basic salary. However, when they were handed their contract shortly before leaving Nepal, it promised only £268 a month, including overtime.
Another man – 34-year-old Ram Bahadur – says he was ushered into a side room in the offices of his recruitment agency in Kathmandu just hours before he was due to leave for Malaysia and told he must pay a further £340 on top of the £870 he had already paid for his job.
“You’ve cheated us!” shouted a furious Bahadur. The agent calmly asked the men to put their hands up if they no longer wanted to go. No one did. “We had no money left,” says Bahadur. “How could we return to our homes empty-handed? So we had to go.”
The men say the only answer is to put in punishing hours of overtime in an attempt to boost their paychecks. 12- to 14-hour days are the norm in much of Malaysia’s electronics sector. A payslip seen by the Guardian shows Bhandari worked 29 out of 30 days in September, including 65 hours of overtime.
“The work is extremely difficult,” says another worker at the Samsung plant, Rabi Tamang. “You get only 45 minutes in a 12-hour shift to eat and seven minutes every two hours to drink water.”
The men say they can expect little help from their supervisors at the labour supply company either. “Old timers say if we speak up a lot, they will get someone to beat you up, or they will transfer you to a worse place,” says one man working at the Samsung plant.
Many of the group now want to leave, if only they could. They say their passports were all confiscated on arrival in the country, an illegal but pervasive practice, and they have been told they will have to pay £740 if they want to go – the equivalent of four months’ basic salary.
Bhandari does not know if the labour supply company will allow him to return to Nepal, but even if he could, it is not an option for him. “We have problems at home so either I’ll have to pay the agent to work for another company, or run away and find work illegally outside,” says the teenager. “I don’t have any other choice.”
Samsung officially bans suppliers from charging foreign workers recruitment fees or confiscating passports and, as a member of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) has also pledged to repay worker recruitment debt.
When asked whether Samsung had repaid any worker debts at the factory, one man employed directly by Samsung instead of through a labour supply company says he hasn’t received any compensation.
“Samsung doesn’t know how to give,” he says. “It only knows how to take.”
A Samsung statement said: “As a committed member of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), we comply fully with the EICC’s Code of Conduct and have found no evidence of violations in the hiring process of migrant workers hired directly by our manufacturing facility in Malaysia. Once there is any complaint, we take swift actions to investigate.
“We are currently conducting on-site investigations of labour supply companies we work with in Malaysia and the migrant employees hired by these companies. If any violations are uncovered, we will make immediate corrective actions and moving forward we will suspend our business with companies that are found to be in violation.”
*Workers’ names have been changed to protect their identities
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